ATD Blog

Can Doctors Be Leaders?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

One of the main current discussions in healthcare is the professional development of our physicians. Now, keep in mind that we are talking about professionals who have been the “best in class” for most of their lives. Indeed, most physicians have spent their entire lives studying, researching, and learning.

So, what can we offer physicians if, by now, the already seem to know everything?

It is not easy to train or educate an audience with such different learning needs. In general, the healthcare workers not only have different individual learning needs, but they also have very unique organizational learning goals than those of other professional sectors.

For example, consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as applied to healthcare. Within healthcare service delivery models, the physiological and safety portions of the pyramid heavily overlap, because healthcare providers are considering patient needs before their own. For physicians, the only way to ensure quality was to adopt high personal standards for themselves—and then meet them.

A New Breed of Leaders

Doctors are in charge at many healthcare organizations and systems. And that can be a problem. Today, healthcare institutions need a fundamentally different approach, and consequently, and a new breed of leaders.

Essentially, healthcare organizations need to design a unique and customized leadership development plan that enhances the leadership skills and knowledge of practicing physicians.  Instructional designers and project managers will need to pay special attention to this peculiar audience’s needs and requirements. Likewise, courseware will need to “speak” their language. In another words, adult learning principles will need to be used in every angle of this multifaceted learning solution.


Case in Point

In an effort to improve its leadership culture, Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) worked with the Harvard Business School (HBS) to create a leadership training program to teach physicians several strategies for becoming more efficient and collaborative.

The BWH identified four key components of effective leadership programs:

  • They provide fundamental leadership tools.
  • They identify ways for physicians to lead and offer necessary support.
  • They hold leaders accountable for progress.
  • They emphasize the importance of leadership.

According to The Advisory Board Company, “The program is available to all Brigham doctors, scientists, and clinical or administrative staff. However, it has an acceptance rate of just 60 percent, and about 90 percent of enrollees are physicians. All participants must receive sponsorship from a leader in a senior academic department.  So far, 285 leaders have completed the training program.”


Create Your Learning Strategy

Even though there is a fast-paced change on the doctors’ skills and knowledge, the needs of patients remain the same.  At the end of the day, it is the “same old, same old” issues: patients get sick, and doctors help them to get well. The learning strategy and leadership development programs at your organization will need to always refer to that simple rule. 

The new caveat is that doctors are accountable for the progress, success, and effectiveness of services in their healthcare systems or organizations. Unfortunately, a large majority of practicing doctors likely learned about the medical field when it was more “art” and a way to help their communities, and less about finance and leadership. Indeed, most of today’s physicians were taught to focus on their patient needs before their own, and not to worry about budget.

In today’s “business” environment, organizational and personal learning are becoming strategic considerations. The special role of strategic planning is to align work systems and learning initiatives with a healthcare organization’s strategic directions. When this alignment is carried out well, improvement and learning form a foundation for, and reinforce, organizational priorities.

To answer the question: “Can doctors be leaders?” Yes they can. More importantly, they should! 

About the Author


Bruno Neal is a scholar and a learning and development authority. He has written dozens of articles on learning and development, two Infoline issues on Informal Learning and Quality in Learning and Development, and one TD at Work™ on Learning and Development in Healthcare. He is a Certified Professional of Learning and Performance (CPLP), and currently works as an L&D leader for Indiana University Health. He has been appointed to the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 Board of Examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a judge of the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 Association for Talent Development (ATD) BEST Award, and Chair of the award committee since 2014. 

Neal was awarded with the highly esteemed American Society of Training & Development BEST Award in 2009, and part of the team awarded with the same achievement in 2011. He also was awarded with the Champion of Learning Award Certification for his contribution to learning and professional development in 2011. In 2015, Neal received the Global Training & Development Leadership Award at the World Training & Development Congress in Mumbai (India) for his contributions to the international learning and development community.

Neal also serves as contributor for ATD’s T+D Magazine. In addition, he has spoken at ATD International Conference & Exposition, local chapters of ATD across the United States, Cancer Treatment of America, Training Magazine conference, the Training and Education chapter of the National Association of Electric Distributors (NAED), Medical Users Software Exchange (MUSE), and ATD’s Learn from the BEST conferences.

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